Fantasy NASCAR track analysis: Intermediates
Atlanta Motor Speedway
Location: Hampton, Ga.
Thanks to its high speeds, ample lead changes and plenty of side-by-side racing, Atlanta has been one of the more exciting tracks on the schedule for a while now. The action has only increased in recent years as loose setups have become the fastest setups. Just because drivers are often on the verge of spinning out doesn't mean the side-by-side racing has disappeared. Expect plenty of action at this 1.54-mile track.
With drivers pushing their cars to the edge with loose setups, tire issues have played a role the last few seasons. Although impossible to predict, a blown tire at Atlanta almost always ends with a driver slamming into the outside wall. Heavy tire wear has also created comers and goers during races. Certain drivers set up their cars for short runs, while other drivers are built for speed over the long haul. The final outcome is often determined by when the final caution falls.
Last fall, Hendrick Motorsports teammates Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson dominated the field. The duo led more than half the laps and delivered a 1-2 finish for HMS, with Gordon going to Victory Lane. Matt Kenseth appeared to be a challenger early in the event, but he faded to a ninth-place finish after leading 64 laps.
Three of NASCAR's biggest stars have been the most reliable fantasy options at AMS. Tony Stewart, Gordon and Johnson have all averaged a top-10 finish at the track since the start of the 2002 season. Johnson and Stewart are tied for the most wins during the stretch with three, while Gordon and Stewart are tied for the most top-10s with 14. A.J. Allmendinger is worth considering as a sleeper pick, while Martin Truex Jr. and David Ragan are among the drivers to avoid.
Charlotte Motor Speedway
Location: Concord, N.C.
Charlotte is one of two tracks on the schedule that plays host to three races during the year, and all three races have plenty of prestige. In addition to the All-Star Race, the track hosts the Coca-Cola 600 – the longest race of the year. Its third and final race has one of the 10 coveted spots in the Chase, meaning any time a driver wins at Charlotte, it is a big win.
Three different drivers went to Victory Lane at the track in 2011, starting with Carl Edwards fighting off Kyle Busch to win the All-Star Race. The Coca-Cola 600 was even more exciting and a little controversial. With several drivers gambling on fuel mileage, Dale Earnhardt Jr. found himself leading with two laps to go as a multi-car wreck occurred. NASCAR decided not to throw a caution, but as the leaders approached the checkered flag, Junior ran out of gas. Kevin Harvick inherited the win, leading just two of the 402 laps.
After coming up on the wrong end of fuel strategy in May, Matt Kenseth exacted some revenge in the fall event. He battled Kyle Busch in the late stages of the race, eventually emerging with the victory. Ironically, Kenseth led the most laps in the May race and finished outside the top 10 but won the fall race despite three drivers leading more laps.
Despite remaining winless at Charlotte, Kyle has still established himself as one of top fantasy options at the track, finishing eighth or better in eight of his last nine starts. Six-time track winner Jimmie Johnson and three-time winner Kasey Kahne are strong performers, as well. The rising star at the track is Joey Logano. In six starts, he has four top-10 finishes and has compiled a series-best 8.2 average finish.
With five DNFs, Ryan Newman is among the drivers to avoid. Despite his thrilling victory in May, Harvick is still a questionable pick. The victory was just his second top-five finish at Charlotte in 20 career starts. Juan Pablo Montoya also has struggled, compiling a 24.7 average finish and three DNFs in 10 starts.
Location: Joliet, Ill.
For one of the newer tracks on the schedule, Chicagoland has sure seen some significant changes. The track has hosted daytime events and night races, and in 2012, track will host the first race of the Chase for the second year in a row. Formally just another 1.5-mile track on the schedule, all eyes will now be squarely on Chicagoland when the Chase begins.
Last year, the race marked the awakening of a sleeping giant. Tony Stewart limped into the playoffs and was winless as the Chase began. Smoke quickly made up for lost time, winning at Chicagoland for the third time in his career. It was the first of five playoff wins for Stewart, who would go on to win the title via a tiebreaker.
With his victory last year, Stewart entrenched himself as the top fantasy option at the track. His 8.2 average finish is tops in the series, and the same goes for his three wins, eight top-five finishes and nine top-10s. Hendrick Motorsports teammates Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon both average top-10 finishes, as well. Brian Vickers is the top sleeper option. He has a 9.5 average finish and has never finished outside the top 15.
Although normally one of the top performers at 1.5-mile tracks, Greg Biffle has managed just one top-10 finish in nine starts at Chicagoland. Denny Hamlin has struggled, as well, compiling a 19.2 average finish. Kasey Kahne has been even worse, compiling a 21.0 average finish. All three drivers actually rank among the best at 1.5-mile tracks, but for whatever reason, Chicagoland continues to stump them.
Location: Darlington, S.C.
Remember that scene in Rocky IV when Rocky asks Apollo Creed if he has enough nicknames? Well, Darlington has its fair share of nicknames, as well. From the "Lady in Black" to the "Track too Tough to Tame," NASCAR's original superspeedway has earned every one of its catchy titles over the years. Darlington's trademark surface may have been changed, but it remains one of the most unique and historic tracks on the schedule.
The track's sandpaper-like surface has been smoothed, and drivers no longer have to pit every time the caution flag waves. However, Darlington's odd shape still causes problems for drivers. Side-by-side racing is next to impossible through Turn 3 and Turn 4; drivers need to exercise some serious give and take to make things work. Unfortunately, there tends to be a lot more take as the race wears on. Drivers may not have to be as patient with their tires at Darlington these days, but it still takes patience to win.
Last season's race was a coming out party for Regan Smith. After opting to stay out during a late round of pit stops, a quick series of cautions allowed him to maintain the lead while the laps dwindled down. He then held off Carl Edwards in a two-lap shootout after Edwards scraped the wall trying to run down Smith. It was Smith's first career Cup Series win, and it came on one of the sport's biggest stages.
While Smith was the surprise last year, Denny Hamlin has been the dominant fantasy option. His 6.5 average finish at Darlington is tops in the series, and he has never finished outside the top 15. Jimmie Johnson has averaged a top-10 finish at the track, as well, while his teammate Jeff Gordon has a series-leading eight top-five finishes since the start of the 2002 season. Keselowski tops the list of sleepers thanks to his 7.3 average finish in three career starts.
The normally reliable Richard Childress Racing drivers have had their struggles at Darlington. Clint Bowyer has compiled a dismal 24.5 average finish in five starts, while Kevin Harvick has compiled an 18.9 average finish. Jeff Burton has actually been the most consistent of the RCR drivers, but he has not recorded a top-five finish at the track since the start of the 2001 season.
Location: Homestead, Fla.
There is only one track on the schedule where the winner of the race isn't necessarily the first driver interviewed. As the site of the season finale all eyes are on the series champion when the checkered flag flies at Homestead. Unless the race winner also happens to be the driver that wins the title, expect to see two drivers celebrating after the race.
Thanks to the addition of progressive banking, Homestead has become one of the roomier 1.5-mile tracks on the schedule. Drivers can run up by the wall, down on the white line and everywhere in between. Passing has increased, which only adds the excitement and drama that already exists with a title possibly hanging in the balance.
Last season, Tony Stewart completed one of the most incredible playoff runs in NACSAR history and in the history professional sports for that matter. Stewart not only won the race, giving him a record-setting fifth in a single Chase, but he won the title in the process. Stewart overcame early damage to the front of his car, a pair of slow pit stops and a questionable pit strategy. He then held off Carl Edwards during the final 35 laps to beat Edwards for the championship. The two drivers finished tied atop the standings, but Stewart won his third title based on total number of wins in 2011.
Despite coming up short last year, Edwards still leads all drivers with a 5.3 average finish at the track. Kevin Harvick has a 7.9 average finish and has finished in the top 10 in nine of his 11 starts at Homestead. A.J. Allmendinger is among the top sleeper picks, compiling a 10.3 average finish in four starts. Martin Truex Jr. is another potential candidate, as well, notching five top-10s in seven starts at the track.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. tops the list of drivers that have struggled at Homestead. He has yet to finish in the top 10 in 12 career starts. Juan Pablo Montoya has compiled a dismal 28.3 average finish, failing to finish in two of his six starts. Kyle Busch has been almost as bad, compiling a 25.9 average finish with just one top-10 in seven starts.
Location: Kansas City, Kan.
Kansas may seem like just another 1.5-mile track on the schedule, but the action has been anything but ordinary. From unexpected winners like Joe Nemechek to inexplicable decisions by NASCAR like declaring Greg Biffle the winner despite him running out of fuel, the track has played host to some memorable moments. The fact that Kansas is part of the Chase has only made these moments better.
The excitement Kansas has provided over the years has brought fans to the track in droves, and NASCAR awarded the track a second date in 2011 as a result. For fantasy owners, the earlier date should serve as a decent indicator of what to expect at the track come playoff time. It's always nice to have as much information as possible when it comes time to set fantasy lineups.
Fuel mileage came into play last July, and Brad Keselowski stretched his tank and coasted to his first win with Penske Championship Racing. The victory jump started a second-half charge for Keselowski. He went on to win three races and make the Chase. After looking lost in the Cup Series for almost a year and half, the win at Kansas seemed to make everything click for the young driver.
In the fall event, Jimmie Johnson mounted his last stand as champion. He led 197 of the 272 laps, winning for just the second time in 2011. It was the last time the five-time reigning champ looked like a serious title threat during the Chase. He had just one top-10 finish in the final six playoff events.
Johnson, Greg Biffle, Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart are the only drivers with multiple wins at the track. Biffle's 8.3 average finish at Kansas is tops in the series, while Gordon's eight top-five finishes and nine top-10s are both track records. Johnson averages a top-10 finish at the track, having notched nine top-10 finishes in 11 starts. Keselowski headlines the list of sleeper options, recording three top-15 finishes in four starts, including his victory last July.
Surprisingly, Kyle Busch has struggled at the 1.5-mile track. He has just one top-10 finish in nine starts, compiling a 21.1 average finish. His teammate Joey Logano has struggled, too, posting a 27.2 average finish. The normally consistent Matt Kenseth has had his issues at Kansas. He has compiled a 18.8 average finish in his last 12 starts at the track.
Location: Sparta, Ky.
After finally landing a Cup Series event for the first time in 2011, Kentucky Speedway wasted little time making a terrible first impression. A traffic jam and parking issues caused thousands of fans to miss the race because they couldn't even get to the track. Owner Bruton Smith has vowed to fix the issues before this year's race, and things certainly can't be any worse than they were last year.
Even with one race in the books, fantasy owners still face a challenge with Kentucky. A new track means very little data to fall back on when setting rosters. The only saving grace is that every owner is in the same boat. Based on last year's race and the Nationwide Series events at Kentucky, the 1.5-mile track appears to be plenty racy. Drivers can run multiple grooves, making side-by-side racing possible.
The only saving grace for fans that missed the race was that they didn't miss much. Kyle Busch dominated a majority of the event, leading 125 of the 267 laps on his way to a win in the track's inaugural race. Brad Keselowski was his biggest threat most of the night, but in the end, Busch had to hold off a late surge from David Reutimann.
One race is a small sample size, but the Roush Fenway Racing cars appear to have a solid setup to work with. The organization placed three drivers in the top eight. Joe Gibbs Racing had a strong showing, too, placing all three drivers in the top 15 and sending Busch to Victory Lane. Richard Childress Racing wasn't as fortunate. All four RCR drivers failed to finish in the top 15.
Las Vegas Motor Speedway
Location: Las Vegas
Now that drivers have had a few years to adjust to the track's progressive banking, Las Vegas is beginning to take on the feel of a traditional 1.5-mile oval. Side-by-side racing is becoming a regular sight, and drivers have the luxury of using both the high and low lines. The track has come a long way from the one-groove, flat-cornered speedway that joined the series.
Last season, Tony Stewart appeared to be on his way to his first win at Vegas. He led a race-high 163 laps and even overcame a speeding penalty to regain the lead. However, Carl Edwards gambled on two tires during the final round of pit stop to grab the lead. Stewart tried to reel in Edwards, but the checkered flag flew before Smoke could get back to the front.
Edwards' win was his second at Vegas, cementing his status as one of top fantasy options. Jimmie Johnson leads all drivers with four wins at the track, and his 10.6 average finish is the best in the series. Two-time winner Matt Kenseth is another elite fantasy option at Vegas. The track also offers several sleeper candidates. Jeff Burton, Marcos Ambrose and Joey Logano all average top-15 finishes at Vegas.
Nevada native Kurt Busch is among the big names to avoid. He has just three top-10s in his last 11 starts at his home track, compiling a 20.7 average finish. The track has also given Brian Vickers fits. Through seven starts, he has a 23.0 average finish. Juan Pablo Montoya is also trying to figure out the track. He has a 22.4 average finish in five starts, although he did crack the top five for the first time last season.
New Hampshire Motor Speedway
Location: Loudon, N.H.
For the first time since the inception of the Chase, New Hampshire didn't play host to the opening race of the playoffs. That being said, drivers still had to deal with the tricky 1.0-mile track early in the postseason. New Hampshire moved to the No. 2 slot on the 10-race Chase schedule, and it will remain there in 2012.
New Hampshire is kind of a unique track. There are other 1.0-mile tracks on the schedule, and there are other flat tracks. However, New Hampshire is the only flat, 1.0-mile oval track. The lack of banking makes passing hard enough, and the fact that New Hampshire really only has a low and middle groove only exacerbates the situation. When the race is on the line, drivers often turn to the chrome horn to get the job done.
Last July, Stewart-Haas Racing teammates Ryan Newman and Tony Stewart were the class of the field from start to finish. Newman started on the pole with Stewart to his outside, and after 301 laps, the two were still running first and second. The SHR duo combined to lead 167 laps on the afternoon and left little doubt they had the fastest cars on the track.
The Chase race at the track featured a role reversal of the 2010 event. The year before, Stewart had the lead on the final lap, only to run out of gas and hand the win to Clint Bowyer. A year later, it was Bowyer running out of gas and handing the win to Stewart. The outcome was up in the air most of the afternoon, with five different drivers leading more than 40 laps.
It should come as no surprise to fantasy owners that the traditional flat track aces have excelled at New Hampshire. The top four average finishes at the track belong to Denny Hamlin, Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon and Stewart. Hamlin's 9.0 average finish is tops in the series, while Johnson and Stewart lead the group with three wins. Stewart also leads all drivers with 10 top-five finishes since the start of the '02 season.
Jamie McMurray headlines the list of potential fantasy options that have struggled at New Hampshire. In 18 starts, he has compiled a 22.8 average finish at the track. Brian Vickers has had problems, too, grabbing just two top-10 finishes in 13 starts. David Ragan's numbers are even worse. He has one top-10 in 10 starts and has compiled a 23.6 average finish.
Texas Motor Speedway
Location: Fort Worth, Texas
The 1.5-mile quad-oval is always in the mix for the title of fastest track on the schedule. Ample banking allows drivers to barrel into the corners and carry plenty of speed back on to the straightaways. Multiple grooves allow for easy passing and side-by-side racing, but the high speeds can often get drivers in trouble, especially since double-file restarts have been thrown in the mix.
Last April, Matt Kenseth put a Texas-sized whipping on the rest of the field. He led a race-high 169 laps, building an insurmountable lead down the stretch. It was one of the most dominant performances of the entire 2011 season. Kenseth's victory highlighted a banner night for Roush Fenway Racing. The organization put three cars in the top four and four cars in the top seven.
Roush Fenway Racing had another strong showing in the fall event at Texas, but it was Tony Stewart that had the car to beat. He led a race-high 173 laps and pulled away from Carl Edwards down the stretch. Edwards was one of three RFR drivers to finish in the top five.
Needless to say, the Roush Fenway Racing drivers are fantasy gold at Texas. Kenseth, Edwards and Greg Biffle are all former winners at the track. Kenseth leads all drivers with an 8.7 average finish, and Edwards has a series-best three victories. Biffle has been on a tear as well, reeling off eight-straight top-10 finishes, including three straight top-five finishes. Marcos Ambrose, A.J. Allmendinger and Trevor Bayne are all solid sleeper options.
Although he is a former winner at Texas, Kasey Kahne has managed just four top-10s in 15 starts while compiling a 19.6 average finish. Ryan Newman has similar numbers, posting a win but just three top-10s in 17 starts at the track. David Reutimann has compiled a 24.9 finishing in nine starts, failing to finish three times. Juan Pablo Montoya has struggled, as well, posting a 23.2 average finish through 10 starts.
About Brian Polking
Racing has been part of Brian's life ever since he can remember, and he spent his childhood at dirt tracks throughout Ohio and Kentucky watching his father race. NASCAR naturally became his favorite sport, and he has been following the Cup, Nationwide and Truck Series for most of his life. Brian majored in journalism and economics at Ohio State University and becoming a sports writer has always been his dream. Although he has covered everything from minor league baseball to the NCAA tournament, his passion has always been NASCAR. Brian has served as a NASCAR writer for a variety of sites, eventually becoming head editor of the NASCAR section for Fanball.com. His knowledge of NASCAR comes from his life-long love of racing, and he tries to add a personal touch to every article he writes. Brian is always up for talking NASCAR with anyone that wants to. Brian joined KFFL's team in 2011.Follow @kffl_racing
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